In April I’ll be publishing another book, which, when the time comes, I’ll be flogging relentlessly. But an early comment from Robert Sietsema on a Village Voice blog got my hackles up, a criticism about the book's being Franco-centric in all things culinary. And the reason for the raised hackles is not that it’s critical, but rather because it indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of cooking that is all too widespread. Here is the statement about the book: “it's completely retrograde in its purview – everything seems to be French (or at least Franco-American) in its underpinnings, as if the myriad cuisines of the world did not exist.”
This is exactly what bothers me about criticism of all things French in the culinary world. My book, which is called Ratio, is about the fundamentals of cooking (and using weight-based ratios of basic ingredients), and while those may have been best categorized and explained by French cooks beginning hundreds of years ago, these fundamentals apply to every kind of cooking there is, Mexican, Italian, Russian, Asian, because food behaves the same in one country as it does in another.
For instance, just because we call a custard crème Anglaise doesn’t mean it’s exclusively French. All culinary cultures have custards like the quiche above, or the ice cream below. So saying that something is retrograde because it has French underpinnings is to fail to understand that all cooking can be reduced to a handful of fundamental techniques, regardless of the language you use to describe them. It’s the same as arguing that crème caramel and a Spanish flan are different preparations. My point throughout the book is that if we know the ratio for the vinaigrette (three parts oil, one part vinegar) we don’t simply know one French sauce, we know an infinite number of such sauces, whether a lime-peanut vinaigrette for a Thai-inspired salad or a chimichurri for grilled steak (both of which are discussed in the book).
If I’d written a recipe book, which is what 95% of all “cookbooks” are, then Sietsema would have a valid point. But I don’t write recipe books. Come to think of it, I wish there were more of a distinction between cookbooks and recipe books.
I guess what riles me, though, is being misconstrued. I do not deny being Franco-centric, but by discussing the fundamentals of any cuisine you are necessarily talking about all cuisines and about how protein and fat and eggs and flour and sugar and salt behave when combined in differing amounts under differing circumstances.
Of course, I love a classic French Quiche Lorraine, loaded with bacon lardons and sautéed onions and cheese. But here is something I’m sure no one knew before and I hope it is a revelation that carries you aloft throughout your day and into the next. Here it is: when you freeze the classic French sauce called crème Anglaise, you get American ice cream! It’s true! I tried. It’s like magic.
Tradtional Crème Anglaise
(from Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Every Day Cooking, Scribner, April 7)
• 8 ounces milk
• 8 ounces cream
• 1 vanilla bean, split down its length
• 4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup)
• 4 ounces yolk (7 yolks)
Combine the milk cream and vanilla bean in a sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and let the bean steep for fifteen minutes. With a pairing knife, scrape the beans from the pod into the milk-cream mixture. Discard the pod (or store it in sugar).
Combine the sugar and yolks and stir vigorously with a whisk for thirty seconds or so (this will help the sugar to begin dissolving and will also help the egg to cook more evenly).
Fill a large bowl with a 50-50 mixture of ice and water, and place a second bowl into the ice bath. Set a fine-mesh strainer in the bowl.
Over medium heat, bring the cream just to a simmer, then pour it slowly into the yolks while whisking continuously. Pour the mixture back into the pan and continue stirring over medium heat until the mixture is slightly thick, or nappé—it should be completely pourable but if you dip a spoon in it, it should be thick enough on the spoon to draw a line through it—2 to 4 minutes, depending how hot your burner is.
Pour the sauce through the strainer into the bowl set in the ice bath. Stir the sauce with a rubber spatula until it is cold. Cover and refrigerate till ready to use.
Makes about 2 cups of sauce, great for tarts, berries, cakes. Freeze it in your ice cream machine if you want it to become ice cream.
Update 2/25: Many of the comments, for which I'm very grateful, are more critical of Sietsema than I'd imagined they would be so I want to note that I wasn't intending to vent after beign criticized or to criticize the writer—rather I meant to address an issue that continues to come up with regard to my work. Regardless where I stand, it's a point worthy of debate from both sides and a debate I hope is ongoing.